What Is Justification in Scripture and Reformation Theology?

Scales of Justice

Stephen J Wellum:

In church history people have disagreed as to what justification is, and the purpose of this chapter is not to restate all the data for the Reformation’s view of justification as the biblical view.[1] Numerous books have argued this case, along with other chapters in this book.[2] Instead, I assume that the Reformation’s view of justification is the biblical view, and in this section I summarize the overall view only to set the stage for my argument that the Reformation’s view of justification and penal substitution are inseparably related.

What Is Justification in Scripture and Reformation Theology?

Justification is a word/concept from the law court denoting, primarily, that action whereby a judge upholds the case of one party in dispute before him. Having heard the case, the judge reaches a verdict in favor of the person and thereby “justifies” him; this action has the force of “acquittal.” The judge’s declaration entails that the person is not penally liable and thus is “entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law. Justification settles the legal status of the person justified and thus it is a forensic term (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Rom. 8:33–34).”[3] As a forensic concept, a person who is justified is “just,” “righteous”—not as a description of his or her moral character but as a statement of his or her status or position before the court. Thus, “to justify” does not mean to make righteous—that is, to change a person’s character[4] —but rather to constitute righteous by declaration.[5] In the case of God as the Judge of the world, when he justifies us, he declares us to be just and righteous before him and not first to be in the covenant community.[6]

In the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters, it is always God as our Creator, Lord, and Judge who “justifies,” and it is always humans who are justified.[7] For Paul, justification is always forensic and before God (Rom. 2:13; 3:20). It is by grace through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:28, 30; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:8, 24), and it is not by “works” (Rom. 4:2; Eph. 2:8–10) or by the “works of the law”—that is, by obedience to the law’s demands (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16).[8] Evidence for its forensic meaning is found in Romans 8:1, 33–34, where “to justify” is contrasted with “to condemn” (κατακρίνω), and in the synonyms of “justification”—“to vindicate” and “to acquit”—which convey the meaning “to declare righteous.” In fact, “to condemn” is not to make someone sinful or to infuse sin or rebellion into someone; rather, it is to find someone guilty. When God justifies us, he, as the Judge, declares us “not guilty.”[9] The forensic meaning of δικαιόω is emphasized in Romans 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies [δικαιοῦντα] the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (ESV). The word translated “counted” or “credited” (λογίζεται) is a legal term thus underscoring the fact that God “justifies” the wicked not by “making” us righteous by transformation but by “declaring” us righteous because of our faith in Christ’s finished work.[10] As Anthony Hoekema summarizes, “By dikaioō Paul means the legal imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner.”[11]

In the New Testament, however, in contrast to the Old Testament perspective, our justification does not take place only on the “last day,” when we stand before God on “the day of the Lord” (Isa. 2:10–22; 13:6–11; Jer. 46:10; Amos 5:19–20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:14–2:3). Instead, justification is God’s end-time verdict that by faith in Christ, we now are justified and stand righteous before God (Rom. 4:2; 5:1; 8:1); God’s final judgment verdict has been brought into the present even though we still remain sinners and await our full transformation and glorification.[12] This entails that the “justifying sentence, once passed, is irrevocable. God’s wrath will not touch the justified (Rom 5:9). Those accepted now are secure forever.”[13]

How is this possible? How can God, who is holy and just, declare sinners now justified? (Rom. 4:5; 8:1). God is able to do so by grace, not because he has overlooked our sin, nor because we are righteous in ourselves, but because God’s declaration views us in relation to the person and work of our covenant Mediator, who stands in our place, bears our sin, and satisfies all God’s righteous demands against us. In Christ, we receive the gift of righteousness, which is now ours by faith in him. In union with his people, Christ, our new covenant head, obeys in our place, dies our death, and satisfies divine justice, evidenced by his resurrection from the dead. As a result, by faith alone and in Christ alone, his righteousness is ours, now and forever (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). In him, we stand complete: justified before God by the forgiveness of our sins and clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

Read Dr. Wellum’s entire chapter in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls.


Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.